Most organisations have mentorship programs, however sponsorship rather than mentorship is going to improve the retention of strong talent and help advance people in the workplace. To clarify, a mentor counsels someone, possibly in the same company, but not always. A mentor offers the mentee the benefit of their wisdom and experience but is usually not in a position to make decisions about career advancement (e.g. compensation or promotion).
In contrast, a sponsor is a person of influence within the same organisation or industry as their protégé and can influence their career progression by putting them forward for promotions, high profile projects and generally singing their praises. The benefits of sponsorship to an organisation include the following:
- Engagement and retention are improved as up and coming staff members feel that they are being cultivated and nurtured
- Senior management can have an active role in identifying talent and positioning high potential staff to be future leaders
- Sponsors get the opportunity to develop their own leadership skills.
When I became the COO of a technology division, I was in a position as a senior manager to drive positive change for women. I noticed the low number of women on promotion lists, the high number of women on redundancy lists, the high percentage of female attrition, and the significant salary gaps between men and women performing similar roles. There was not a strong pipeline of women being considered for senior positions. Talented and qualified women existed and they wanted the opportunities but somehow they were not on promotion lists.
I saw very talented but disappointed women leaving the company and even the technology industry so I decided to do something about it and launched a company program to improve the female talent pipeline. The program improved the engagement between senior management and talented female employees. A key part of the program included the program participants leading strategic internal projects. These projects created opportunities for the women to showcase their talent, develop strong professional relationships with senior management and have access to resources to grow their career.
Sponsorship can, of course, evolve organically but HR departments can also encourage a culture of sponsorship in the following ways:
Aligning Goals: Ensuring that sponsorship is a part of senior management performance goals and objectives is a key way HR can promote internal sponsorship. Senior managers should participate in leadership initiatives and demonstrate that they are doing activities that contribute towards identifying and developing talent within the organisation.
Stakeholder Identification: Encouraging employees to understand who are their key stakeholders within the company and hence potential sponsors that can influence their career. Employees should seek opportunities to develop strong professional relationships with potential sponsors. HR can often offer guidance on opportunities in which staff to develop connections with potential sponsors.
Cross Team Engagement: HR can play a role in making introductions between staff and potential sponsors. Arranging networking opportunities between departments allows staff to meet potential sponsors from different areas of the company. In some organisations staff are not even aware of the decision makers that influence their careers.
Senior Management as Trainers: Leverage senior staff to conduct training rather than hiring external trainers so that stronger professional relationships are established between management and staff. Senior management have so much experience to offer and are best positioned to convey the organisation’s strategy and how employees can align to strategy in order to grow their careers.
Watch out for Queen Bee Syndrome: Perhaps, for me, the most important thing HR can do is stamp out Queen Bee Syndrome. Queen Bees are women in the workplace that treat colleagues in a demoralising, undermining or bullying manner. Queen Bee Syndrome can be the biggest hindrance to women advancing in the workplace because these women will often lack the sponsorship or support necessary to get promoted due to their negative behaviour. HR can encourage women supporting other women in the workplace with programming that supports the development of strong female talent pipeline.
HR can play a critical role in helping organisations to align their strategy and goals to internal sponsorship. A culture that actively promotes sponsorship leads to a high performing environment in which employees feel engaged, supported and empowered.